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Curmudgeon in a Corset : THE DIARY OF H. L. MENCKEN edited by Charles A. Fecher (Alfred A. Knopf: $30; 476 pp.)

January 14, 1990|RICHARD EDER

His tone is cold and clinical. Even while reporting his frequent kindnesses, he makes them seem an unpleasant duty. An appalling blackness creeps in. When Roosevelt, whom he hated, died, he writes with grim triumph of "La Eleanor," as he called her: "She is alarmingly homely, she is growing old and she has lost her job."

His numerous disparaging references to Jews have already been widely reported and discussed, along with a lot of discussion about the nature of his anti-Semitism. It has been pointed out--by the editor of the diary, Charles Fecher, among others--that on the one hand, he had many close friends who were Jews and that, on the other, he said awful things about all sorts of people: bishops, the English, liberals, socialists, blacks and so on.

Indeed, in one sentence he manages to be offensive about three races at the same time. He is talking about the disgusting habits of those whom he calls the purest of Anglo-Saxons: Baltimore's slum-dwelling migrants from Appalachia. "They are so filthy and destructive that the Jews who own the houses have begun to turn them out and put in blackamoors," he writes.

More depressing than the name-calling is Mencken's complacent account of the discovery by the Maryland Club, where he regularly ate his buttered terrapin, that one of its members was Jewish. The man was persuaded to resign. Formerly, Mencken notes, the club always had one Jewish member, but nowadays "there is no other Jew in Baltimore who seems suitable."

This apart, the diary presents a bleak picture of a fiery individualism declining into a chilly, industrious isolation. Mencken prized his bachelor brother, Augustus, who shared his house and his curmudgeonly opinions. He cherished his routine of work, meals, conversations and playing duo-piano transcriptions of the classics at the Saturday Night Club.

But the voice--that which makes a diary--is solitary; and more than solitary, stuck. Mencken's bubbling flow of ideas--"They worry me until they are set forth in words," he writes revealingly--have become a stock that he hoards, counts and re-counts, without either adding to or spending.

Mencken left his diary to the Pratt Library in Baltimore, asking that it be sealed for 25 years, and thereafter made available only to scholars and researchers, on a not-for-quotation basis. The trustees got advice from the Maryland attorney general that they were not legally bound to observe the request.

Fecher, the editor, writes that there was then some discussion about whether they were morally bound. The trustees evidently decided not. Curiously, Fecher does not tell us his own opinion. Presumably he agrees, but I would have liked to hear him on the subject, because his introduction is otherwise a model of grace, sensitivity and candor.

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